Thursday, August 1, 2013
Give me a character-driven mystery!
Millions of readers buy page-turning, heart-pounding, nonstop-action thrillers, and millions more go to see them in the movies. Plotting is one of the chief elements of the storyteller’s art. And since stories consist of words, of course the writing is important in a work of fiction. But what makes the difference to me between a book—or a movie or a TV series—that’s merely okay and one I love and can’t wait for more of is character.
Give me a protagonist I can empathize with, one who’s intelligent and complex, one who isn’t described—and doesn’t talk or think—in clichés. Make me forget he or she isn’t real. Give this character feelings. Put him or her into relationships—with lovers, parents, children, friends, colleagues, and antagonists—that feel authentic and have some depth. While you’re making things happen in the investigation or chase or caper or doomsday scenario, put conflict into the character’s relationships too. Give that character a chance to grow in self-knowledge, perseverance, and resilience, which I consider the three essential qualities of a mature human being.
If the characters ring true to me—if you can make me love them and care what happens to them—it hardly matters what kind of story or setting you put them in: mean streets of noir or stately homes of Golden Age detective story, galactic future or historical past, post-apocalyptic dystopia or realm of fantasy. For example, quite a number of my A-list mystery series are police procedurals, British police procedurals in particular. If I dare admit it, I don’t really care that much about police procedure. But how else would I have made the acquaintance of P.D. James’s Adam Dalgleish, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s Bill Slider, Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe, or Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James? All these characters have a vivid existence that stretches far beyond the confines of their investigations.
I’ve become a very picky reader of authors new to me, a non-finisher of books that aren’t engaging my interest. One of the books I’ve liked the best this summer—enough to think about buying its predecessors in the series—is Jane Casey’s The Last Girl. Her Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan is in the direct line of descent from the characters mentioned above. She’s got a case that she won’t let go of, an ambivalent boyfriend, an obnoxious partner who occasionally surprises us by showing a little heart, an embarrassing mother, and a stalker. Now that’s a character you can sink your teeth into.
I’ve been kind of bingeing on the TV versions of British detective series via Netflix and my iPad, both service and hardware new to me so I have a lot of catching up to do. All are based on books, though the characters and storylines tend to develop far beyond—or sometimes differently from—what’s laid out by the original author. The Dalziel and Pascoe characters are true to the novels, but on TV, Pascoe’s marriage doesn’t last. (One assumes the actress had other fish to fry and had to be written out.) Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby in Midsomer Murders seems to be going on forever, and Barnaby’s had two different sergeants since his original sidekick Troy. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse was a huge success, more popular and more lovable in the TV series than he’d been in the books. Now that Morse is deceased, we have Inspector Lewis—and isn’t it a delight to see him develop from the callow sergeant whom Morse could always trick or bully into paying for every round in the pub into a self-assured and humane investigator whose love life is finally getting back on track after the loss of his wife.
In one of this season’s episodes of Inspector Lewis, a very new detective constable is assigned to Lewis while Hathaway is on vacation. Lewis is not particularly pleased to be saddled with a babysitting task. His boss says, “Be nice to him.” Lewis says, “If Inspector Morse had been nice to me, I’d still be a sergeant.” We smile, because we still remember and believe in Morse, that clever and cantankerous man, and his relationship with Lewis, which included admiration, exasperation, and affection.